The Importance of Access to Public Lands
By Daniela Cervantes
The first time I went backpacking, I was a senior in high school. The Youth in Wilderness program took us to Arroyo Seco, which is located in the Ventana Wilderness of Central California between Eastern Big Sur and the Salinas Valley. The first night we camped, after dinner, I was walking to my tent guided by a dim flashlight. As I walked, I stopped myself to ask, “What’s the hurry?”
I stood in the cold, dark field and made one of the best decisions of my life: I remembered to look up at the sky. It was the richest, brightest, most intense night sky I had ever seen. The lack of light pollution and our high elevation made me feel like I could almost touch the dark blue velvet above. This image is forever engraved in my mind. After admiring the sky, I walked back to my tent protected by moonlight.
This experience inspired me to become a wilderness instructor. Now, four years after my first backpacking trip, I bring young people on wilderness trips in the Los Padres National Forest—many of whom, like me, are exploring the outdoors for the first time. Having access to beautiful trails, rivers, mountains, and fresh air so close to home is important for young people in particular. Yet, the future of the Los Padres continues to be threatened by logging of old-growth trees and climate change. That’s why I’m also an advocate for our public lands.
Our leaders must continue to prioritize protections for our public lands and rivers so that more young people can have life-changing experiences in the outdoors, and become environmental stewards and leaders in their own communities. Fortunately, there are several, complementary legislative efforts underway in Washington, D.C. to protect public lands and rivers on the Central Coast and statewide.
Representatives Salud Carbajal, Judy Chu, Jared Huffman, and Adam Schiff and Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein have continued to champion conservation efforts. Collectively, their bills will protect and increase access to more than 1 million acres of public lands and well over 500 miles of rivers in California, including in the Los Padres. This legislation has already passed the U.S. House, and I hope that Congress will carry it over the finish line this year.
It’s no secret that spending time outdoors offers incredible benefits, including stress reduction and improved mental health. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to easily access the benefits of nature. That’s why we must increase protections to our public lands and rivers, and reduce barriers to access for communities of color in California. All young people deserve the chance to view the Pacific Ocean from thousands of feet above, to spot a rare California Condor flying above the treetops, or to gaze at a night sky free of light pollution—no matter where we live.
For me personally, accessing the outdoors helped me become more resilient. Many of our students (myself included) come to our program with little to no comfort in the outdoors. This is why we teach mindfulness to our students through solo hikes and nature activities, which help mitigate stress and fear that they may associate with unfamiliar experiences like camping or hiking. Students can then use these skills to navigate hardships at home, in school, or at work. These lessons follow us as we become adults, too.
I am fortunate to be able to take our students to beautiful places on the Central Coast, where we learn about local wildlife, plants, and the importance of protecting our public lands. By teaching environmental stewardship, we form personal connections to our Central Coast public lands and can become advocates for these special places.
Fostering the next generation of environmental leaders is more important now than ever before. The Los Padres’ public lands and rivers are increasingly at-risk from logging. Recently, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a controversial project that would allow logging of centuries-old trees in two proposed additions to the Sespe Wilderness.
I urge California’s Congressional champions to continue advocating for areas within the Los Padres, and for other public lands and rivers throughout our state, to get the protections they deserve this year. Let’s provide more opportunities for young people to spend time outdoors. Every young person in California should be able to experience nature so that we’re inspired to protect it into the future.
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Daniela Cervantes is a Youth in Wilderness Instructor with Ventana Wilderness Alliance. She grew up on the Central Coast and is currently a student at UC Berkeley.
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